Brexit: backlash, betrayal and race hate in UK media

by Jane Whyatt
Britain’s newspapers, TV and radio show the ugly face of Brexit. A spike in race hate crime is reported, with the Muslim Council of Britain reporting more than 100 incidents in the first three days after the referendum vote to leave the EU.

Brexit presscoverage BREXIT - Press covers 23 June

The Polish ambassador in London Witold Sobków has issued a statement expressing concern about xenophobic attacks in Cambridgeshire and in the capital. A Polish community centre and primary shoolchildren have been the targets of graffiti and hate speech.

Meanwhile the far-right anti-immigration British National Party reports “ the phones are ringing off the hook with new membership inquiries“.


The LEAVE campaign was characterised by scare tactics in the tabloid newspapers with propaganda-style posters and TV adverts claiming that millions of migrants from new EU countries such as Turkey would stretch Britain’s public service “to breaking point.“ One poster has already been reported to the police.

Complaints about the LEAVE TV adverts, screened shortly before the main evening news, number 274 at the time of writing, according to Lucy Aldington at the regulator Ofcom. She says the grounds for complaint are cited as inaccuracy and incitement to racial hatred.

This ad claims that outside the EU, Britons will get faster, better treatment in the National Health Service and inside the European Union they will be forced to wait behind a queue of migrants.

And in another advert the LEAVE campaign claims candidate countries Turkey, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro will suck away financial resources needed by the National Health Service.

But the morning after the vote, LEAVE leader Nigel Farage (UK Independence Party MEP) stated on TV that it was „a mistake“ and  that no-one could guarantee all the money saved in EU membership contributions would be spend on healthcare.

Boris Johnson (Conservative MP and candidate to be the next Prime Minister) has admitted that the sum of £350 million  to be diverted from EU to NHS - a figure painted on the side of his LEAVE campaign bus - is not accurate. Former Prime Minister Sir John Major (Conservative) warned about this earlier in the campaign. (check and reference)

Faced with this apparent betrayal, almost 300,000 voters have signed a petition demanding that the LEAVE campaign keeps its election promise to “spend the £350 million we used to pay the EU on the National Health Service.“

Political advertising is covered by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, which sets out strict rules for TV and radio journalists. They demand strict impartiality during election and referendum campaigns, and broadcasters are required to prove that they have not given more airtime to one side or the other. Commercial advertising is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority. However the LEAVE campaign advertising does not fall into either of these categories.

Queen’s complaint upheld

Newspapers are free to engage in political campaigning. Research at Loughborough University shows that, weighted by circulation, the national papers came out 80% for LEAVE and 20% for REMAIN, and that the themes of immigration and the economy dominated coverage.

Meanwhile the Queen’s complaint against the pro-LEAVE Sun newspaper for misleading readers about her views on the EU has been upheld.

Brexit Queen

However the adjudication was not prominently displayed on The Sun’s front page but in a small item on page 2. And it did not stop The Sun, which is part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Group, from repeating a similar story just two days before the referendum. It shows a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and the British flag, and the headline „Give me three good reasons why we need the EU?“ and the answer “ We can’t think of any, ma’am.

Four new complaints have been made to the regulator IPSO about this article.. Spokesman Niall Duffy says it is not policy to reveal the names of complainants, but all four complaints were made on the grounds of inaccuaracy (Article 1 of The Editors’ Code). Of course, only the Queen herself knows how accurate this quote might be. And Rupert Murdoch has made his own views clear.

Nick Cohen, writing in both the left-liberal Guardian and the right-wing Spectator, observes that many older working-class Labour voters fear immigration. They are the very people who rely most on the NHS for free healthcare, and  the LEAVE campaign played on these fears. He comments that its leaders Micheal Gove and Boris Johnson are both former national newspaper journalists-turned-politicians. So they clearly knew how to phrase their  referendum promises and how to explain them away when Brexit became a reality. Johnson is a former Brussels correspondent and long-time critic of European Union bureaucracy.

’More in common’

Human rights campaigners at the London Office of the Open Society Foundations, the Open Rights Group and Liberty fear there will be an impact on journalists’ and citizens’ rights as a result of the vote. ORG is worried about the new law on surveillance which will give greater powers to the authorities to collect and keep electronic communications. All fear the repeal of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines in British law the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights. These organisations are non-political and did not join the referendum campaign on either side but tried to keep human rights on the agenda. Liberty issued this statement:

Since the callous killing of Jo Cox MP, politicians from across the political divide have pledged to ‘reset the dial’ on our political culture. This is welcome and long overdue. Those who genuinely reject the politics of hate and extremism have a duty not to fuel it. For our elected representatives, occupying a privileged and powerful position, this responsibility is stronger still.

Democratic leaders should appeal to our better nature, not stir our darker thoughts. They should remind us every day that we have more in common than that which divides us and that a better world is possible.“

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